Economist studies PGA Tour stats

Todd McFall 2011

If you play golf, you’ve likely heard the siren call for newer and better equipment. Does playing your round without the latest in club technology hurt your score? According to new research by sports economist Todd McFall, the answer is, probably not.

A ban on superior high-spin golf club grooves implemented at the beginning of the 2010 golf season offered an opportunity for McFall to compare golfers’ performances before and after the technology was prohibited. For his research, he had access to the PGA Tour’s ShotLink database, which contains a record of every shot a professional player takes on the tour.

Without clubs to promote spin and increase accuracy, particularly around the green, it might be expected that scores would go up. The opposite happened. The number of shots taken to complete a hole decreased from a variety of yardages and locations on a course. The differences were statistically significant when golfers played from fairways, light rough and sand traps.

“Following the technology ban, golfers employed more cautious strategies that in many cases improved their scores substantially by increasing the likelihood their ball would reach the green,” McFall says. “Players changed their behavior by choosing to play more conservatively. After the technology ban, they were no longer playing darts with their shots to the green. Instead, they compensated by being satisfied with just getting on the green more often, thus giving them better control of the ball for their next shot.”

The idea for his research has its roots in a 1970s study related to mandatory seatbelt use and safety. The Peltzman effect, named after economist Sam Peltzman, hypothesizes that people tend to react to a safety regulation by increasing other risky or “offsetting” behavior. After the institution of mandatory seatbelt laws, Peltzman found that people tended to drive more recklessly. Regulations meant to protect car occupants from the consequences of bad driving actually seemed to encourage bad driving.

McFall’s research is the first to look at offsetting behavior from an opposite approach to Peltzman’s, when an improving technology is prohibited rather than required.

His findings, published in Applied Economics Letters, reveal more than what happens when the rules change on the golf course. The research has implications for economic policy makers.

“Economics is like water going down a hill,” says McFall, who teaches introductory economics and price theory. “Regulation is like a rock that forces water around it. Like the water finding a way around a rock, people will find a way around the regulation. So, understanding the relationship between people’s risk tolerance and responses to technological change can aid in policy-making decisions in a number of settings.”

As for your new clubs, McFall’s research implies that players will compensate for whatever level of technology they use for their game. The key, he says, “Focus on playing strategy and not equipment.”

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